Russia’s growing presence in the Sahel is part of a regional trend, accentuated since 2014 and gaining a new impetus with the escalation of the war in Ukraine. Overall, Russia's main method of engaging in Africa remains security cooperation, supported by communication campaigns.
At the same time, Burkina-Faso, which has faced two military coups since January 2022, is witnessing regular street demonstrations in support of Russia’s involvement.
Authorities in Chad and Niger are also experiencing modest attempts by the Kremlin to gain influence while Mauritania seems able to keep them at arm's length, despite signing a military agreement in June 2021.
The intensification of formal military cooperation with the countries of the continent occurred simultaneously with the deployment of Russian private military companies (PMCs) in Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mozambique where, among other operations, they engaged in direct combat. Russia’s presence in Africa is based on a dual modus operandi: formal state cooperation and security collaboration via private companies affiliated with the “Prigozhin galaxy”. Its attractiveness in the countries of Francophone West Africa, specifically in urban areas, poses a series of questions regarding the future of the European, and particularly French, military presence and strategy.
Security à la Russe
The appearance of Wagner in Mali in December 2021 can be regarded as a continuation of the “loose” Kremlin’s strategy in the Sahel, leading to further isolation of Mali from its European and north-American partners. Contrary to the CAR, there is little information on Wagner in Mali as well as on its funding, and the Malian authorities did not officially recognize their deployment, explaining the presence of Wagner “instructors” as a result of formal military cooperation.
However, reports of international and non-government organizations denounce massacres and extra-judicial executions committed by Wagner combatants, while Malian and Russian authorities regularly contest the data, claiming they are “anti-terrorist” operations. According to Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), Wagner was also involved in attacks in several Malian regions, resulting in numerous civilian fatalities.
The arrival of the Russian PMC in Mali did not bring a substantially new approach to managing the insurgency. Extorting civilians and instrumentalizing local armed groups occurred before Wagner. In 2021, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) published a report on French airstrikes in January near Bounti village that killed nineteen guests at a wedding party. Although the French and Malian authorities rejected the massacre. The Kremlin’s communication campaign is using this incident, along with others, to denigrate policies conducted by “Western” countries, while promoting Russia’s image as a successful and efficient alternative to the “Western” security presence. Communication campaigns alone cannot explain the appeal for the Russian “offer”. Despite the presence of international forces in the Sahel, supported primarily by France and other European countries, the security situation continues to deteriorate. This gives rise to feelings of despair and powerlessness, bolstering the appeal of Russian “solutions”.
The Kremlin also plays on internal power struggles for State transformation as well as on multiple local discontents by promoting the image of a strong man in power. Embodied in the figure of President Putin, this image, diffused mostly in urban areas, also goes hand in hand with nostalgia for authoritarian regimes of 1960s-1980s that used to govern in the Sahel.
Opposing Russian Influence in the Sahel Is No Easy Task
Countering Russian influence in the Sahel is a challenging task for both Europe and North America, mostly because controversial relations with Moscow are still poorly understood by European and North American partners. As the UN vote for the Ukraine resolutions showsthe prism of the fight for democracy against authoritarianism is not productive and will likely continue to generate solicitations for Russia, which continues to appeal to Soviet nostalgia for an "alternative" path.
The growing Russian presence in Mali, and fears of its diffusion to other Sahelian countries, has provoked an important reaction from European partners, especially France, which is cutting not only military, but also other forms of collaboration, including development aid. The future of MINUSMA is also being questioned, as some contingents are withdrawing and the Malian government is pressuring the mission’s investigation mechanisms, denying the right of free movement to investigate human rights abuses.
The isolation of countries such as Mali does not seem to help solve the complex political and security crisis in the region but leaves civilian populations in a difficult situation. Russia won’t replace volumes of development or humanitarian aid, even if in its rhetoric it continues to display the importance of its involvement on the continent, specifically through the preparation of the second Russia-Africa summit for the summer of 2023.
The Future of Russia’s Engagement
The uncertainties of the war in Ukraine and the internal political situation in Russia make it difficult to predict the future of Russia's projects in Africa. However, increasingly isolated, the Kremlin will continue to seek support from African leaders. Russia's current engagement in the Sahel is unlike that of the Soviet Union and does not involve significant public expenditure, while generating some profit for business and political elites.
It is questionable whether Russia, in its current institutional form, will be able to execute promises of socio-economic development. As it was stated in many reports, the Sahel needs an approach less centered on military operations, but on a wider political strategy, including engagement with militant leaders, which is unlikely to happen with Russia’s approach.
But the Sahel, experiencing a certain fatigue from the “Global West” also needs a less paternalistic approach. Russia seems to represent such an option, and this may be the principal reason explaining its current growing presence in the Sahel, with tragic outcomes for civilian populations.
 Audinet M. & Gérard C. (2022). « Les “libérateurs” : comment la “galaxie Prigojine” raconte la chevauchée du groupe Wagner au Sahel », in Le Rubicon, Les nouvelles formes de guerre, Paris, Éd. des Équateurs, 2022, p. 69-86.
 Surveys as “Mali-Mètre” show growing attractiveness of Russia in urban areas in Mali. Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (2012- ). « Mali-Mètre : enquête d'opinion ; "Que pensent les Maliens? ». However, the results of such studies are often based on limited empirical data and have methodological biases. For example, the perception of Russia in rural communities where Wagner combatants are operating may be different from the idealistic representations of Russia that the surveys may capture. In general, there is very little academic research (if almost none) on the effects produced by Wagner presence on local communities. See on this last point Harchaoui J., Lechner J., Smirnova, T. (6 December, 2022). «Wagner, mais pas seulement : les mercenaires ne sont pas près de disparaître…». The Conversation.
 According to eyewitnesses, Wagner members participated in a massacre in the town of Moura, killing hundreds of civilians, while Malian government authorities indicated that these people were “terrorists”. Human Rights Watch (5 Aprlil, 2022). « Mali: Massacre by Army, Foreign Soldiers ». TAAS (8 April, 2022). « Zaharova indicated on similarities between the Western propaganda on the events in Mali and in Bucha // Zaharova ukazala na shodstvo vbrosov Zapada po situatsii v Mali i v Buche »